Frailty doesn't feature in war

The March of the Women
March 2, 2001

The gender politics of history writing is particularly evident in the secondary accounts of the struggle for women's enfranchisement in Britain. Since the publication of George Dangerfield's influential 1935 text, The Strange Death of Liberal England , there has been a small number of male historians who have written within a similar masculinist framework that seeks to belittle the suffragettes of the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU), a women-only organisation founded by Emmeline Pankhurst in 1903 to campaign for the parliamentary vote for women on equal terms with men. This book is of that genre.

Nowhere in this text does Martin Pugh make his standpoint explicit, yet it is evident throughout. He claims that accounts of the women's suffrage campaigns seem "unbalanced in many ways", especially in the emphasis given to the WSPU, and that he will offer "a truer perspective". Feminist historians who have reinterpreted the campaign as a "sex war", whereby women wanted to transform gender relations in society, are dismissed for their use of selective quotations to support their dubious case. This is rich coming from a historian who, in my view, relentlessly selects data to fit his viewpoint. Pugh sees the women's enfranchisement campaign as a single-issue demand, which it was not. The sexual subjection of women that followed from the legal doctrine of coverture, from low wages and from prostitution was a key concern. Pankhurst was not alone in seeing the vote as a means towards social reform.

The book, follows a broadly chronological pattern and is organised into ten essays. Early chapters explore the tactics of the campaign and conclude, controversially, that the constitutional, non-militant National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), led by Millicent Garrett Fawcett, had won the " principle of women's enfranchisement" by the turn of the century (Pugh's emphasis), thus making the foundation of the WSPU and the tactics of the suffragettes unnecessary. Pugh then hoists himself on his own petard when he goes on to illustrate, contrary to his intentions, that argument alone was not enough to grant votes to women.

The second section focuses on the politics of the two main parties of the day, the Conservatives and the Liberals. Feminist voices are absent, apart from those that are critical of the women-centred politics of the WSPU. For much of the campaign in the early 20th century, a Liberal government was in power, with the anti-suffragist Asquith as prime minister. The question of why the liberal demand of the right of citizenship for women was refused by a Liberal government is not satisfactorily answered. Instead, feminists are blamed for their tactics. The demand for votes on the same terms as men, which meant a limited women's suffrage measure based on a property qualification that would mainly enfranchise single women, is described as a "cautious approach" that contributed to the length of time taken to win the vote. Suffragettes who heckled the supposedly pro-suffragist Winston Churchill are blamed for alienating him. By such selective argument, Pugh lets politicians off the hook.

In the final section, it is claimed that the militant tactics of the suffragettes failed because they were committed, often "as an indulgence", by middle and upper-class "ladies" who failed to mobilise working-class women. The denial that middle and upper-class women can be radical agents of social change echoes criticisms raised by Marxists who saw the women's movement as a deviation from the class struggle.

One feels that Pugh breathes a sigh of relief when he arrives at the penultimate chapter where the revival, from 1912, of the non-militant approach of the NUWSS and its leftwing alliance are credited with the "eventual success of the cause". At long last, he can discuss male suffragism. "Unfortunately," he claims, "the Pankhursts had no desire to be treated as frail women in need of male protection." Yet although Pugh speaks of male chivalry, he makes no reference to Sandra Holton's 1987 essay on this theme.

Pugh does not deliver a revisionist analysis of the women's suffrage campaign, but offers instead a useful lesson in historiography. In 1913, Christabel Pankhurst, the key strategist of the WSPU, wrote: "No men, even the best of men, ever view the Suffrage question from quite the same standpoint as women themselves." Pugh's book illustrates that her comments are still relevant.

June Purvis is professor of women's and gender history, University of Portsmouth.

The March of the Women: A Revisionist Analysis of the Campaign for Women's Suffrage, 1866-1914

Author - Martin Pugh
ISBN - 0 19 820775 1
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £25.00
Pages - 303

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